Zialo: The newly-discovered Mande language of Guinea

Zialo: The newly-discovered Mande language of Guinea. By Kirill Babaev. (LINCOM studies in African linguistics 82.)Munich: LINCOM Europa, 2010. Pp. 260. ISBN 9783862880164. $170 (Hb).

Reviewed by Christopher R. Green, University of Maryland

Kirill Babaev’s offering brings to light an incredible degree of detail on Zialo, a Guinean Mande language that has been mentioned only fleetingly in earlier work. The author acknowledges that his work is not exhaustive insofar as it only minimally explores topics in phonology, morphology, semantics, or discourse. The main thrust of the book is to detail many of the complex syntactic structures of the language. B frames his observations on Zialo alongside other closely related Mande languages, thus speaking to the well-known goal of crosslinguistic, comparative, and classificatory research being carried out by him and his cadre of Russian contemporaries working throughout West Africa.

Ch. 1 of the book provides introductory remarks on the state of knowledge of Zialo and its close cousins, among them Mende, Bandi, Loko, Kpelle, and Looma. Chs. 2 and 3 delve into insightful cultural and sociolinguistic information about the Zialo people and their language use, respectively.

Ch. 4 begins the descriptive bulk of the book in its presentation of basic features of the Zialo’s phonetics and phonology. Addressing metrical foot structure and syllable structure. B discusses the presence of foot-like units in Zialo, which are similar to those described by other scholars in work on a number of other Mande languages, such as Bambara, Gouro, and Maninka. B also attends to the language’s consonant and vowel inventories, sound correspondences between Zialo and several of its relatives, and Proto-Southwestern Mande, as well as several tonological processes believed to be under way.

Ch. 5 covers a number of characteristics related to morphology, most provocative of which is the presence of suprasegmental morphemes that provide clues to the underlying tonal structure of an adjacent morpheme and the complex system of initial consonant alternations witnessed in certain constructions and phrases. Ch. 6 through Ch. 9 hold the syntax portion of the book, with individual chapters devoted to the nominal system, the pronominal system, the verbal system, and sentence-level syntax. Topics of particular interest include the exceptional behavior of loanwords into the language; the relationship between predicative person markers, personal pronouns, and bound person markers; and differing means of marking focus, topics, intensity, and emphasis.

The book closes with three appendices. Appendix 1 offers a 100-word Swadesh list comparing Zialo, French, and English. The second appendix provides several collected Zialo texts. The final appendix is a dictionary of Zialo to English and French that is quite extensive and well done for its size.

B’s book is a welcome contribution to ongoing efforts aimed at providing grounded and methodologically informed documentation of languages from the Mande subgroup of the Niger-Congo language family.